TECH TALK: Tracking your every move

by Eric Austin
Technical Advisor

Remember that story about Hanzel and Gretel leaving breadcrumbs behind them so as not to get lost in the woods? Well, this week’s topic is kinda like that — if Hanzel and Gretel were actually everyone who used the web; the breadcrumbs are your credit card information, browsing and purchase history; and the wicked witch is actually hackers hell bent on screwing up your credit history.

So, basically the same.

The truth is that we leave breadcrumbs behind us wherever we go on the web. Sometimes those breadcrumbs are for our benefit and cause us no harm, but, unfortunately, often they’re left behind to benefit others.

In this article I’d like to briefly go over the different ways we can be tracked on the Internet.

Cookies. I’m sure you have heard of “cookies.” You may have seen a notification pop up on one of the websites you visit informing you that it uses cookies. But what are they?

Basically, cookies are small text files that websites create on your local hard drive which store bits of information about you. This information can be very basic, such as whether you have ever visited that site before, or as complex as what products are in your shopping cart, your login details, which ads you have clicked on and many other things.

There are three types of cookies. First-party cookies are ones which are left by the website you are currently visiting. This is the most common type of cookie, and generally is harmless and adds to your browsing experience.

Third-party cookies are left by advertisers running ads on the site you are visiting. For the most part, these cookies are also harmless. But since you have no control over who might be leaving them, they have a greater possibility of being malicious, so it is usually better to turn them off in your browser’s preferences. The only thing you’ll be missing out on is ads tuned to your buying preferences.

A final type of cookie is called a Flash Cookie because they are exclusive to websites that use Adobe Flash. Also called Local Share Objects (LSOs) or “supercookies,” since they cannot be gotten rid of by the most common efforts to delete browsing data, such as clearing your browser cache or deleting cookies. To remove these nefarious little devils, you’ll need to go to Adobe’s website and change your settings there.

For a long time, cookies were the lone way websites and advertisers had of tracking their visitors, but they had one major weakness: since the data resides on a user’s local machine, that user can delete them at will — and then all that carefully collected data was gone! Advertisers didn’t like this.

So websites and advertisers have recently found a way around this problem with a method called Device Fingerprinting. This allows websites to uniquely identify your device through a myriad of hardware and software characteristics. Rather than relying on local stored data to identify you, this fingerprint information is stored on the advertiser’s web servers instead. The advantage for advertisers is that, once your device has been fingerprinted, that information can only be removed by the company who created it. This method is almost impossible to subvert since it doesn’t rely on any locally stored data.

If you are curious just how your unique device fingerprint is created and what it’s based on, you can visit the site https://panopticlick.eff.org/, and click the “Test Me” button.

Mobile devices shouldn’t be left out either. Device fingerprinting has evolved to include phones and tablets, as well as printers, game consoles, smart TVs and just about anything that connects to the Internet.

Further, your mobile device has its own identifier specifically for advertisers — Apple iOS’s Identifiers for Advertisers (“IDFA”) and Google Android’s Advertising ID.

Just be comforted in knowing that, on the Internet, you are never alone. Big Brother is always watching!

Feeling a little uncomfortable after reading this week’s column? Then you’ll definitely want to tune in to the next one where I’ll be talking about how to be anonymous on the web.

Have an opinion or question about this column? Stop by the website and leave a comment! Want me to cover something in a future column? Drop me an email at ericwaustin@gmail.com. Until next time my fellow Mainiacs, happy computing!

 
 

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